A picture shows a church in the Syrian Christian town of Maalula on Septamber 7, 2013
A picture shows a church in the Syrian Christian town of Maalula on Septamber 7, 2013. © - AFP
A picture shows a church in the Syrian Christian town of Maalula on Septamber 7, 2013
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Rana Moussaoui, AFP
Last updated: September 8, 2013

Syria's Christians pray for peace and protection from strikes

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More than 1,000 Christians held a prayer vigil for peace in Damascus on Saturday, heeding a call from the Vatican, as the US pressed for a military strike on Syria.

Men, women and children thronged Our Lady of Dormition, the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarchal cathedral in the Old City of Damascus, for an emotionally charged plea for peace.

"God protect Syria," they chanted during prayers led by Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Laham, whose church is an eastern rite that recognises the authority of the Vatican.

"We thank all those who, at the United Nations, are working for peace so that there would not be any strike on Syria," the patriarch told worshippers.

He prayed for a "peaceful solution" to the 30-month war in Syria, which has killed more than 110,00 people.

"I tell the young people, 'stay here'. We will stay in Syria. We will stay here, both Christians and Muslims," he added.

Pope Francis -- who led a mass vigil at the Vatican on Saturday -- has called for a "cry for peace" from humanity, firmly opposing all fighting including the military strikes against the Syrian regime being pushed by the United States and France.

Earlier in the week he wrote to leaders of the G20 top world economies meeting in Saint Petersburg, Russia, urging them to "lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution".

Vatican officials have warned international armed intervention could escalate the war into a wider conflagration that would further harm Christian minorities in the Middle East.

"I came to pray so that peace will prevail in Syria," said Rita, who brought her two little girls with her to church, one of them on a stroller.

Another woman among the congregation broke down in tears as she sat at the back of the church, a rosary clasped in her hand.

"It is because of my village, Maalula," she told AFP before sobbing again.

Maalula is an ancient town that symbolises the Christian presence in Syria and where residents speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ used by few communities around the world

The town north of Damascus had been spared from the violence that has rocked Syria since March 2011, until Wednesday when violence broke out there for the first time since the conflict erupted.

On Saturday new clashes between rebels and regime forces rocked Maalula.

In a courtyard outside the cathedral, children held up placards with messages that read: "Maalula is burning, save it".

"I'm sad because Maalula is a symbol of Christianity," Elias, an accountant now living in Damascus, told AFP of his home town.

"I brought my family here from day one" of the violence, he said.

"It was a shock. We did not expect that to happen."

Prayer vigils for Syria were held around the world on Saturday, as the United States lobbied for support for a strike on regime targets over an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds two week ago.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday many countries were prepared to take part in US-led military strikes on Syria.

"There are a number of countries, in the double digits, who are prepared to take military action," Kerry said in Paris.

President Bashar al-Assad's government denies responsibility for the August 21 attacks and has warned of regional repercussions if military strikes against Syria go ahead.

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